On the cutting block.

Harmless Chatter? China Doesn't Think So

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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China's Communist Party guards nothing quite so vigilantly as its role as political propagandist.

Last year, for example, the government succeeded in effectively neutering the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service as a platform for political discussion. And when Weibo faded as a political platform, instant messaging apps overtook it for public and private discussions.

According to state newswire Xinhua, the wildly popular three-year-old WeChat app (owned by Tencent Holdings), has 800 million users. Such a broad user base, combined with China's gossipy culture, can spread information to large numbers of people in an instant, and render the work of China's government propagandists irrelevant. So, inevitably, instant messaging's turn on the cutting block has come.

China's State Internet Information Office issued a vaguely worded directive Thursday inaugurating a campaign to "eliminate malpractice on instant messaging services." Among the targeted miscreants are pornographers, terrorists and -- above all --rumormongers.

The campaign should inspire some authoritarian deja vu among China's Internet users. Last year's Weibo crusade was the government's first step in efforts to extinguish posts critical of the government (and the political discussions such posts inspired) that had briefly turned the site into a national town square.

The other goal was to target the so-called "Big Vs," the nickname given to a few hundred of the most popular and influential users of the service. Notably, one of the biggest of the Big V's was arrested amid of the campaign (for soliciting a prostitute) and quickly confessed -- on national television -- to posting irresponsible information online. The message was unambiguous: deviate from party propaganda at your own online risk.

For now, at least, the government appears to be modeling its instant messaging campaign on its Sina Weibo crackdown. On WeChat there are no Big Vs, but there are 5.8 million public accounts (akin to public pages on Facebook) to which anyone can subscribe. Entertainers, authors, journalists and corporations are among the common users of these public accounts, with some using them to post news and other items that are (or might be construed as) critical of the government.

Under Thursday's regulation, users of public accounts -- but not private ones -- will be subject to three new restrictions. First, they'll need to provide proof of identity to service providers (though they'll be allowed to use pseudonyms once the real name verification has taken place). Second, and far more damaging, holders of public accounts will be required to obtain approval from their service providers if they want to post "current political news." The service providers, in turn, will file records of those approvals with "content management departments," thereby going on-record with the authorities as the responsible party for all news-posting accounts. Needless to say, that is a strong disincentive to approve such accounts.

Finally, in a restrictive flourish, only news units and news websites will be allowed to post current political news; everyone else with approval will only be able to re-post what the approved public news accounts have already posted. Since those public accounts will mostly belong to state-owned (and regulated) news services, this provision will just amplify the voice of the state media.

Meanwhile, just as during the Sina Weibo crackdown, the campaign against instant messaging has been accompanied by publicized arrests of online rumormongers. Over the weekend, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece newspaper, the People's Daily, reported four arrests and 81 detentions for spreading rumors such as "gunfire heard" in Beijing, and predicting earthquakes. The campaign has also gone beyond just public accounts and public rumormongering, into the realm of thought crime: Late last week, a man in Xuzhou was arrested for sharing terror rumors "between friends."

China's state media has been quick to offer columns and editorials supportive of the crackdown, with Zhao Yingjie, a columnist with the Beijing Times, topping all others in a toadying article whose headline speaks for itself: "Restricting Rumors Protects Legitimate Speech Rights."

But among the online Chinese still willing to comment on the news, the reaction has been far less enthusiastic. "I can't help but ask: if there can be no discussion of our national affairs, how can they monitored and supervised?" asked Zhang Jiwen, a Beijing lawyer, via Sina Weibo, on Saturday. "And if there's no supervision, how can there be any justice?"

It's a fair question -- but under the Communist Party's new online regulations, it's really not one open for discussion.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net